Nice question, broadening as it goes. Was there ever a better time to discuss hurling, to ponder its possibilities and mysteries?
Think about it. A roster of 20 top-class games in five weeks is unprecedented. There are many ways of describing this roster (and some on the club scene use expletives, whatever the play’s attractions). One apt description would be “laboratory”.
Mid-June will leave six counties standing from the initial group of 10, delivering an audit of sorts. This initiative is stretching elements of the game to the limit. Former Kilkenny star Richie Power recently characterised round-robin formats as an “injury lottery”, a topic dear to his heart and sore to his head.
So, last weekend. One flick all but swung a game. Another flick could not alter a game’s tilt. How might we read the difference?
First one: 20th minute of Limerick’s joust with Tipperary. Billy McCarthy’s graft meant a Tipp possession out on the left wing. He sent an angled ball towards top of the right, where corner-back Richie English appeared to be shepherding John McGrath away from goal.
Genius barked. As the sliotar landed, McGrath pulled one-handed, striking the far post with an audacious flick. Dan McCormack met the rebound on the fly and goaled.
Second one: 55th minute of Cork’s joust with Clare. Shane Kingston, on as a Cork sub 13 minutes, buzzed around Séadna Morey and delivered a so so ball, one neither a delivery nor a point attempt.
Genius harked. As the sliotar was going wide, Patrick Horgan sent it back across goal with a one-handed flick. Conor Lehane, following up like McCormack, found the net via a deft touch.
Two moments of genius, two reasons why we love hurling.
The difference? Cork could build on Horgan’s intervention, winning by five points, because spirit was sound. Beaten by six points, Tipperary could not build on McGrath’s audacity because spirit was unsound.
The point is unglamorous but enduring, a constant amid so many alterations in gear, rules and structure. This new roster, sharp in its demands, can only highlight the sinews of spirit.
Tomorrow evening: Offaly and Wexford in Tullamore. The home side, decently competitive in their two outings, will scent an opportunity.
Wexford were not madly impressive in overcoming Dublin by two points in their first outing. Even so, Wexford are further along in development, which usually means further along on the scoreboard.
Clare, with home advantage in Ennis, should fend off Waterford. The hosts are further advantaged by coming warm to the table and seeing their opponents short Austin Gleeson and Pauric Mahony.
Same time, you just would not know. Waterford possess plenty good hurlers. Yet management mulched their league campaign for no obvious rationale and the vibes on Déise Street are not great.
The round-robin’s compelling aspect sends Kilkenny to Galway, where a win for the visitors would deliver a Leinster final slot. But can their midfield stymie those defence-committing runs by David Burke and Johnny Coen?
Kilkenny’s situation here is unclear. James Maher was injured last weekend and Richie Leahy started at wing-forward. Conor Fogarty is struggling for steady form.
All in all, Galway should prevail. They did what needed to be done, first day out, against Offaly. Their full-forward line will pose pointed questions about the opposition’s much queried full-back line.
Same time, do not rule out a draw. Swapping Joey Holden and Paul Murphy (2 and 7 last weekend) would improve the Kilkenny backs. Equally, Richie Hogan impressed this week during a Senior-U21 challenge. He may play a part.
Nearly always, the meeting of All-Ireland Champion and NHL Champion would be our headline encounter. Not this weekend.
The palm goes to Tipperary and Cork in Thurles. Everyone knows why. Tipperary’s flop against Limerick last Sunday bunched many questions, noisy as jackdaws on a roof.
Michael Ryan, as Tipperary manager, seems a likeable character, gracious and thoughtful. This decade, Éamon O’Shea and himself, along with the class of the county’s half dozen best players, commended Tipperary hurling to parts long impervious to all things Tipp.
Sunday’s contest could decide Ryan’s sideline career. If Tipperary lose, they will struggle to make third place in Munster.
The championship guillotine could be wet by mid June. If so, the current manager hardly survives in hurling’s most difficult job.
I thought Michael Ryan would emerge as Brian Cody’s most potent managerial rival. But his trajectory has wavered. For all their skill, Tipp are trudging and trundling. Far more than the odd flick, however brilliant, is needed.
To be fair, the hoopla about flatness last weekend should be contextualised. Jim McGuinness, retiring as Donegal manager, instanced the dynamics that govern sport. He emphasised the Olympic Games and the World Cup as alike a four-year event. For McGuinness, this span is a natural life cycle.
Tipperary were right there at the top of hurling between 2014 and 2017. A decent argument says they were unlucky to take but one All-Ireland during those four seasons, even if 2016’s triumph did involve good fortune with Galway injuries in the All-Ireland semi-final. But fairground attractions and such like.
I reckon the current malaise runs back to last February, when Kilkenny beat Tipperary by a point in Nowlan Park. Michael Ryan should have gone to bury Kilkenny, pitching them to the brink of NHL relegation final, but held Noel McGrath and Pádraic Maher on the bench.
His message was patent:
“Tipp will bury Kilkenny at a time of our choosing. And might even bury you with half a team.”
The gods of sport rarely allow such choices. You can try to be too clever. There is a flick, too, in fate.
Which or whether, the counties met in 2018’s NHL Final, when there were disquieting omens for Tipperary over and above the six-point defeat. Meanwhile Kilkenny improved by avoiding that relegation final and gaining two extra tests.
Those omens? For Walter Walsh’s goal, Brendan Maher tailed off in his chase. For Martin Keoghan’s point, Pádraic Maher did the same.
Then you had John O’Dwyer wheeling away in celebration before a shot at goal had hit the net. Eoin Murphy, the 21st-century’s best goalkeeper, concentrated on the ball.
This Sunday, Tipperary run out in Semple Stadium, all but make or break. Unless goals are their saviour, Cork will likely win. Restoring energy in a team is management’s toughest task.
Genius takes care of itself, wild as a bird, but only spirit brings the win home.